Modern Heroes: George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg

Today’s modern heroes are George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg who lead one of the most highly regarded design firms in the world. Their work ranges across the commercial space (hotels, restaurants, retail and hospitality) to high-end homes and beautiful furniture. We caught up with them at the launch of their latest collections to learn about their process of creation and collaboration.

IDEALIST: How did you guys start working together?

George: Actually we met in school… in nursery school! We went to this four-year programme in Toronto and that’s where we met. Then a couple years later after we graduated we ran into each other on the street in New York. I hadn’t seen Glenn in years and that same day running into him we were both looking for studio space. Every place I saw, the rent was too expensive or it was too big, so we ended up sharing the space, but we both had our own ambitions.

Glenn: And then we started working on each other’s projects. 

George: We started helping each other with deadlines and then we thought, well who’s going to pay for that coffee and the cream in the fridge? I think sometimes when you don’t plan things they set up a synergy of their own… so that’s what happened.

IDEALIST: What are you showing today?

George: We’re showing this, which is the Blink Collection with Stellar Works and we’re showing a desk and vanity for Glass Italia.

The Blink Collection by Yabu Pushelberg for Stellar Works

The Blink collection includes a range of tables (coffee, side, dining) in round and oval form and in stone and dark wood finishes; a one, two and three seater sofa, a drinks cabinet, a console, vanity and various chairs. The look throughout is understated elegance (pink, grey, sable, dark wood) and luxury finishes). If you were to kit out a penthouse suite for laid-back cocktails, or late night drinks, this collection would set the scene perfectly.

The vanity and desk for Glass Italia both use beautiful curved glass to form the top and the legs of the tables. These are luxury minimalism at its best.

Vanity desk by Yabu Pushelberg for Glass Italia

George: This is one piece of glass: a flat piece of glass. We just did two cuts into it and then put it into the oven …

IDEALIST: How do you achieve the fold in it?

Glenn: I’m not telling you it’s a secret!

Glenn: We’re showing these simple pieces but then we’re planning this for a hotel. It can grow and grow into a system. It came from me doing glassware which we’re presenting at ICFF (North America’s largest series of design events for interiors) New York next month.

IDEALIST: Where did your ideas start from, as your work is quite eclectic?

George: Inspiration comes from all over. I find that sometimes you see things but they’re not really what you think you saw but then you look at that idea and think oh, that could be an interesting detail, for a chair leg for instance. It happens to me a lot. I think lately my eyes have been reversing themselves in my old age. The last six years my eyes have actually been improving. 

IDEALIST: When does that happen?

Glenn: I don’t know. I think he’s the only one.

George: I start seeing things because my contacts are too strong I start seeing weird things and that becomes a random source of inspiration!

George: If we’re doing a scheme for a hotel, we also have a way of coming up with a narrative: a fictional backstory based on the owners of the hotel, going back to their roots, the story of, say, a guy coming back from grad school to inherit his family’s land and building the property we are designing. We create these stories to help flesh out our style and our teams build on the script.

Glenn: For example, we might be working on a project for a relaxed hotel that has an English vibe to it, so the look and the flow need to be a certain way. It helps to add context.

IDEALIST: So, across your different ranges and collections, you must be working to different timelines. How do you deal with that? Is there a long gestation period?

George: Well, we like it short.  It’s funny we had a meeting with a good friend who’s the creative director of a major furniture firm and he was proud to have taken the process of designing a chair from seven years to four years… For us – it’s more like nine months. We have to get it done.

James Collection stool by Yabu Pushelberg for Stellar Works

George: We did this fold up stool for the James collection [a beautiful piece which while recalling the shape of fold out camp stools is finished in warm and tactile black metal, solid walnut and sable-tone matte leather.]. It took us nine months to figure it all out including the rubber bumpers and a new folding mechanism.

Glenn: Of course it went through rigorous engineering and testing, but it’s a new take on flat pack — and you don’t have to go looking for a screwdriver when you take it out!

George: We like to challenge convention. We had this idea where we had a competition in the office to draw spiritual beings, otherworldly beings within a Canadian setting.  Now, through this contest I said let’s make a family of these beings and then let’s design a series of vases, house furniture etc for them. So, this is our project for next year. I don’t know how we’re going to produce it or how we’re going to show it, but it’s going to be very interesting as usual and exotic. 

IDEALIST: What do you look for when you hire to your studio?

Glenn: Enthusiasm. It counts for a lot. 

George: But we also mould them. If people are there for the right reason, we’re interested in absorbing and understanding people’s challenges … and that’s why we’re also interested in teaching. Giving them history, background and coaching them is important — but if someone is very rational I’ll say, okay, let’s try something that’s non-rational and that keeps the energy going.

Glenn Pushelberg and George Yabu

Glenn: It’s like throwing them a curveball to challenge their stability and see what happens. 

George: It’s a very collaborative process. How can we work fast, in detail and to high quality? That’s through teamwork: We’ll start with the inspiration and the notion, then turn it over to the team. We meet very often and everybody can critique the work, work on it, discuss it, refine it and once we get to the end, then we’ll go on to the factory. With Glass Italia, the first prototypes we saw weren’t quite right, so we sat down in the factory and drew it again … and ended up with this beautiful table.

IDEALIST: You work with such a range of different materials and a range of different manufacturers. It must be stressful maintaining the quality that you’re known for.

George: That’s the exciting part. We work with very dedicated and experienced manufacturers, but we like to challenge them and they need to be flexible.

IDEALIST: How do you maintain your vision across your different collections and materials?

Glenn: I think what we’re known for, our common thread, is a high level of detail and a high level of understanding proportions. 

The Blink Collection by Yabu Pushelberg for Stellar Works

IDEALIST: The finishes are all beautiful. That runs through everything.

George: Yes – with the tables of different heights, the easiest thing would be to raise the stem, but we didn’t do that. The legs of each different table are at different angles. That makes it much more interesting to look at.

Glenn: I’m interested in learning new things. We’re publishing a book series too. We found somebody who is a brilliant editor. The third book is the best of them yet. We’re excited because we’re learning how to publish books. The fourth one that we’re going to do we’re just brainstorming now it’s called Pretty Ugly or Ugly Sexy. It’s going to be about beauty.

George: If a building is too pretty then it can’t be that good. 

Glenn: But also, if something is on the verge of being ugly it’s actually at its most beautiful … and then there is that point where it turns into something else.

Here at The Idealist we can say that there’s nothing belle laide about anything in the Yabu Pushelberg collection right now. Their roster of high profile commercial clients and manufacturers attests to that. If you get chance to visit the ICFF at New York’s Javitt’s Center, don’t miss the chance to take a look at their collections. You never know — they may even tell you the secret of how they made that amazing glass desk!

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